Tag: DRC

Part war crimes trial, part performance art: tribunal investigates Congo conflict

People displaced by fighting between the Congolese army and M23 rebels in Bunagana in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, make their way home. (Pic: Reuters)
October 31 2013: People displaced by fighting between the Congolese army and M23 rebels in Bunagana in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, make their way home. (Pic: Reuters)

Theatre director brings together mining companies, government officials and local residents to try to unravel one of the world’s most complicated wars.

No one knows exactly how many people have died in the past two decades in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but Milo Rau, a Swiss theatre director and journalist, puts the figure at six million.

No one is quite sure why conflict has raged either, thanks to the labyrinthine complexity of the region: the alphabet soup of armed groups, the seeming lack of ideology and the shadowy involvement of neighbouring countries and multinational corporations.

But Rau is determined to unravel at least some of these tangled threads. On May 29, he will begin staging an unprecedented event – part political inquiry, part verbatim theatre – in eastern Congo itself, hearing evidence from players on all sides of the ongoing tragedy.

“There are no huge battles, there is no Stalingrad,” he says, explaining why Congo defies the single story that headline writers crave.

“Instead you have massacres – like the one in Mutarule in which 35 people died last year – but they happen every day and, after 20 years, you have six million people dead and you don’t even have a trial. Through the tribunal we hope to simplify it and give it a human face.”

Costing 900 000 euros (£643,969), The Congo Tribunal will take place across six days starting on May 29, first in Bukavu, then later in June in Berlin, where in the 19th century the colonialist empires infamously gathered in a “scramble” to carve up Africa.

‘Nothing has changed’

It took a year to put together a “cast”, including Congolese government and opposition politicians, military officers and rebels, UN and World Bank mandarins and major mining companies, as well as ordinary Congolese citizens, philosophers, economists and lawyers who will all appear before an international jury.

Rau, 38, is determined that it will not merely be an exercise in western corporation-bashing, and should differ from the Russell Tribunals on Vietnam and Palestine – organised by Nobel-prize winning philosopher Bertrand Russell, and hosted by Jean-Paul Sartre in the 1960s.

“It’s not only leftwing people,” he continues, speaking from Bukavu via Skype. “We have an advocate of a huge mining company and an advocate of the government. We also try to see it from the neoliberal side. It’s necessary to have these minerals to produce the computers we’re talking on. But the most important people are the miners and the citizens to tell what has happened.”

Among these is Théophile Gakinz, a pastor from Bukavu. “The resources are badly divided,” he told Rau’s researchers. “A small group of people takes it all. The rest struggles in misery.”

The tribunal will grapple with the region’s ethnic, political and economic dividing lines. It will look at the implications of assimilating former rebels into the Congolese government army, whether the UN and NGOs in the region have become a “peacekeeping industry”, and what impact, if any, American legislation against conflict minerals has had on the ground.

Prince Kihangi, a civil society activist who will be on the jury in Bukavu, said: “The US wants to appear righteous to the rest of the world. Officially they say, hey, we need a law that shows the world that we impose a ban. That we are not involved in this mafia. But because at the same time we need those minerals we must find other ways.

“For us, all these initiatives are fit for nothing. Absolutely worthless. Nothing has changed.”

The investigations

This weekend the tribunal will first hear evidence about three local cases. One concerns the discovery of cassiterite [tin ore] on a hill in Bisie in 2002 that attracted numerous armed groups as well as the Congolese army, who walked away with most of the profits. Four years later a company acquired an exploration licence for the mine from the government, which led to an open conflict with the miners on the site.

A key question for the tribunal will be: “Does the industrial mining of the raw materials in Bisie contribute to the security and economical development of the region, or are the foreign mining companies the only ones who profit?”

The second case examines what happened when a Canadian company bought a gold mining licence and wanted the local population to be relocated, causing conflict.

“Has Banro profited from the political instability during the war in order to plunder the natural resources of eastern Congo, or are they pioneers of the industrialisation of the region?”

Peter Mugisho, a local activist, says in a promotional video for the tribunal: “After the re-localisation they find themselves in a situation with no access to running water, no access to health services and no access to food. This is a method to exterminate the population.”

The final case concerns a massacre in the village of Mutarule in June last year, resulting in 35 deaths. Although local authorities had repeatedly warned about increasing insecurity in the region, neither the nearby UN peacekeeping mission nor the Congolese army prevented the atrocity.

“Key question: Is there no end to the insecurity in eastern Congo because too many local and international players are involved in the numerous conflicts and profit from them, or do they in fact prevent something even worse?”

‘It’s up to us to protect ourselves’

The tribunal – backed by sponsors including the German and Swiss culture ministries – moves to Berlin from 26 to 28 June, where it will examine the involvement of the European Union, the World Bank, the international community and multinational corporations.

It will be filmed and turned into a documentary that will go on general release next year after a premiere at the Tata Raphael Stadium in Kinshasa – where heavyweight boxers Muhammad Ali and George Foreman fought the Rumble in the Jungle in 1974.

The project is a natural successor to Rau’s masterpiece Hate Radio, which reconstructs the broadcasting of a Rwandan radio station that combined pop music with propaganda that fuelled the 1994 genocide.

Sylvestre Bisimwa, chief investigator at the Bukavu hearings, says on the video: “People say to themselves: the state doesn’t protect us. It’s up to us to protect ourselves.

“The victims are left with their pain. They carry their burden alone,” he said.

“This tribunal will lead to a totally neutral and independent prosecution, and will form a base to fight exemption from punishment in Congo.”

David Smith for the Guardian

Let’s be honest. The West ignores Congo’s atrocities because it’s in Africa

Ugandan police trucks carrying refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) travels from Busunga border post to Bubukwanga town in Uganda on July 14 2013. More than 30,000 refugees from the DRC crossed the border into Uganda’s Western District of Bundibugyo, about 430km from the capital Kampala, following a rebel attack on the town of Kamango in North Kivu province. (Pic: AFP)
Ugandan police trucks carrying refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo travel from Busunga border post to Bubukwanga town in Uganda on July 14 2013. More than 30 000 refugees from the DRC crossed the border into Uganda’s Western District of Bundibugyo, about 430km from the capital Kampala, following a rebel attack on the town of Kamango in North Kivu province. (Pic: AFP)

Some lives matter more than others: the “ hierarchy of death ”, they call it. The millions killed, maimed and traumatised in the Democratic Republic of Congo are surely at the bottom of this macabre pile. The country was the site of the deadliest war since the fall of Adolf Hitler, and yet I doubt most people in the west are even aware of it. No heart-wrenching exclusives at the top of news bulletins; no mounting calls for western militaries to “do something”.

We are rightly appalled at a barbaric conflict in Syria that has stolen the lives of 200 000 civilians; and yet up to six million people are believed to have perished in the DRC. Not that the mainstream media alone can be berated for this astonishing lack of attention. The left have rightly championed the cause of a Palestinian people subjected to decades-long occupation and subjugation: surely the misery of the DRC does not deserve this neglect.

Although the murderous intensity of the war peaked between 1998 and 2003, the misery has persisted. According to Oxfam , civilians in the east of the country still face exploitation at the hands of armed groups. The UN has labelled the country“the rape capital of the world”. Women, girls and boys have been systematically raped as a weapon of war. Back in 2011, it was estimated that 48 women were raped every hour in the country. Men were raped, too: there are stories of men being raped three times a day for three years. Then there’s the cannibalism: at one point, pygmies in the north east were being killed and eaten by rebels.

It was a war that was remorseless when it came to the innocent: when 45 000 people were being killed every month , around half of them were small children, even though they only represented a fifth of the population. The war triggered devastating waves of starvation and disease which claimed the lives of millions.

Armed militias continue to commit atrocities, and the aftermath of the war has left the country impoverished and devastated. According to the International Rescue Committee , this is “the world’s least developed country in terms of life expectancy, education, standard of living and key health indicators”. And yet this vast country of nearly 80 million people barely punctures our consciousness. Why?

Being generous, perhaps the war was just too complicated. Some described it as Africa’s own “world war”, the spill-over from the Rwandan genocide that involved the armies of nine African nations. Many different, complex conflicts have intersected with each other. The country is awash with precious minerals that should be a source of huge wealth, but instead have proved magnets for armed profiteers. It is a misery that goes back generations: under the rule of the Belgian King Leopold II in the 19th and early 20th centuries, up to 10 million were killed in one of the greatest acts of mass murder in human history.

But we should perhaps just be more honest. On another continent, such a devastating war would never have been allowed to rage for so long. African lives simply do not matter enough: a death toll of up to 6 million would surely not have been tolerated elsewhere. For the West, it is a country of little strategic importance. As for the left, the complexity of the war was no excuse. It is a cause that should have been championed. It wasn’t, and millions died amid near silence. It must not happen again.

Owen Jones for the Guardian

‘Robocops’ take on Kinshasa traffic

One of three new human-like robots that were recently installed in Kinshasa to help tackle the hectic traffic usually experienced in the capital. (Pic: AFP)
One of three new human-like robots that were recently installed in Kinshasa to help tackle the hectic traffic usually experienced in the capital. (Pic: AFP)

In the teeming capital of DR Congo, where drivers often flout traffic rules, five chunky, arm-waving robots equipped with cameras and lights have been set up to watch over the roads.

The solar-powered aluminium robots are huge, towering over the jammed streets of Kinshasa, as cars and motorcyles jostle for road room, their horns blasting.

Each hand on the odd-looking machines – built to withstand the year-round hot climate – is fitted with green and red lights that regulate the flow of traffic in the sprawling city of nine million.

The robots are also equipped with rotating chests and surveillance cameras that record the flow of traffic and send real-time images to the police station.

Although the humanoids look more like giant toys than real policemen, motorists have given them a thumbs up.

“There are certain drivers who don’t respect the traffic police. But with the robot it will be different. We should respect the robot,” taxi driver Poro Zidane told AFP.

“We’re very happy about it,” he said, his taxi packed with passengers as drivers around him honked their horns in a desperate bid to cut through the traffic jam.

A traffic robot cop on Triomphal boulevard of Kinshasa at the crossing of Asosa, Huileries and Patrice Lubumba streets. (Pic: AFP)
A traffic robot cop on Triomphal boulevard of Kinshasa at the crossing of Asosa, Huileries and Patrice Lubumba streets. (Pic: AFP)

Of the five robots set up across the capital, two have been regulating traffic since 2013.

On Tuesday, three new and improved robots developed by a Congolese association of women engineers were set up across the city.

The newcomers even have names: Tamuke, Mwaluke and Kisanga. They each cost $27 500.

‘An asset for police’

Therese Izay, president of Women’s Technology, the group behind the robots, believes the invention will help make it far more difficult for motorists in Kinshasa to get away with traffic violations.

“In our city, someone can commit an offence and run away, and say that no one saw him. But now, day or night, we’ll be able to see him in real time and he will pay his fine like in all the serious countries of the world,” she said.

The new robots “react much more quickly” than the older models, she said.

“The electronic components work much better now than the ones from the first generation,” she said, adding that she had submitted a proposal for the authorities to purchase 30 more robots to watch over the country’s highways.

Five of the machines have already been sent to Katanga province, in the southeast of the country.

General Celestin Kanyama, chief of Kinshasa’s police force, said the new electronic cops were a welcome addition in a city where 2,276 people have died in traffic accidents since 2007.

“These robots will be an important asset for the police,” he told AFP.

But Kinshasa governor Andre Kimbuta said that while the machines could regulate traffic, they were no match for real policemen who could chase motorists who jump red lights and raise civic awareness.

“We should congratulate our Congolese engineers, but policemen also need to do their job,” he said.


Poor families move in with the dead in Kinshasa cemetery

In a Congolese cemetery overrun with weeds and rubbish strewn among the graves and banana trees, the living have moved in with the dead – some of them years ago.

For want of money and space, families have built houses out of earth, brick or sheet metal alongside tombs – some of prominent figures like the father of the current first lady – in the Kinsuka cemetery in Kinshasa, the Democratic Republic of Congo’s capital.

As they attempt to lead normal lives in this unlikely setting, the cemetery dwellers, who number at least several hundred, are not only living on the land illegally but also face dangerous sanitary conditions.

“You’re afraid you’re going to dig up a bone,” said 19-year-old Emile as he worked on the foundation for his older brother’s new house just steps away from a well-tended grave.

Should he, or the others, degrade a tombstone they face up to six months in prison, while living without a proper land title could mean a year in jail under the country’s penal code.

A woman and a child stand next to a pit at the Kinsuka cemetery on June 10 2014. (Pic: AFP)
A woman and a child stand next to a pit at the Kinsuka cemetery on June 10 2014. (Pic: AFP)

Neighbour Bibiche (23) has lived in the cemetery for two years but says it is still an unsettling experience.

“You feel afraid sleeping amidst the graves, but we had no home,” she said. “The cemetery isn’t good, we have no electricity.”

Yet other cemetery residents say they not only have electricity but pay a “bill” to the national power company, SNEL.

Despite its vast mineral wealth, two-thirds of the DR Congo’s 68 million people are mired in poverty, exacerbated by back-to-back wars that ravaged the country from 1996 to 2003 and left a complex web of rebel groups still terrorising the eastern provinces.

Finding housing is a constant struggle for many, and large numbers of civilians – and even police and soldiers – have taken to the country’s cemeteries to find a place to call home.

But life among the gravestones is no free ride, explained Therese, a five-year resident of Kinsuka cemetery. The 57-year-old widow paid a local chief to buy four plots of land with her children’s help.

“They cost between $2 500 to $4 000 each,” said Therese, who like all the cemetery residents only gave her first name for fear of reprisal.

Inside her two-room house, the bedroom has a mosquito net but no bed.

“In November, the police came to destroy the houses. They took my things,” she said.

“I had to rebuild my house, but I don’t have the courage to rebuild on my other plots that I wanted to rent out.”

Yet scenes typical of village life can still be found in Kinsuka. The dirt paths are lined with wooden stalls selling food and basic supplies, and children in traditional blue and white kits play football at a Protestant school built inside the graveyard three years ago.

“Today it has about 150 students. Parents pay 78 000 Congolese francs per year, against $300 to $400 dollars elsewhere,” said the school’s director.

In some parts of cemetery the construction of homes has made it harder to locate remaining burial plots. The graveyard was founded in 1978 and is the final resting place of several well-known figures, such as engineer Sita Barnabe Kinsumbu, the father of the DRC’s first lady Olive Lembe Kabila, according to a local burial tax collector.

Public health hazard
Government officials say the homes in Kinsuka and other cemeteries across the country constitute a public health hazard, noting that it takes as long as 50 years after a site’s last burial to ensure the ground is fully decontaminated.

“Sometimes people find a source of water but when you sniff it, it smells like a corpse,” said Dr Benjamin Mavard Kwengani, director of hygiene at Kinshasa’s health ministry.

“We haven’t done a study, but there have been abnormal cases in the (cemetery) communities – diarrhoea and abnormalities that we can’t explain,” he said.

According to Pius Ngoie, an advisor to the urban planning ministry, cemetery villages only continue to exist due to negligence and corruption within the civil service.

“Some of the state’s civil servants … are completely irresponsible” and “fraudulently” sell tracts of land in the cemetery, he said.

The cemetery dwellers are under no illusions that their homes could be razed at any moment.

“One day, a [state] tractor is going to come and knock down the houses and they will lose everything,” said Peter, whose father and grandfather are buried in Kinsuka.

His words turned out to be prophetic. Just a few days later, soldiers arrived to destroy some of the homes built on the remains of this final resting place.

Habibou Bangré for AFP

Cirkafrika: The continent’s got talent

The Parisian audience is like a petulant child: very hard to please. So when French spectators and critics waxed eloquent over Cirkafrika, a show by an all-African circus troupe, I was intrigued, but pursed my lips à la française.

“Pfft!” I thought to myself, “What do they know? Yet another ho-hum repeat of contortionists and jugglers and human pyramids and dancers and unicyclists that are typical in plush resort hotels that line the Kenyan coast. Seen one, seen them all.”

A friend from Benin, also sceptical, went with his son to watch Cirkafrika and came away singing a new tune. “Mesmerising,” was his text message. That gave me food for thought.

So tickets were bought for an adult and three children for the show, which runs for over two hours. The children were to be the jury, with the main judge being my three-year-old whose attention span is pretty good – 30-40 minutes tops.

The French circus, Cirque Phénix, produced Cirkafrika. Cirque Phénix’s aim is to present novel artistic creations each new season. Having no proper circus tradition to speak of in Africa – we have  only four big tops: one based in Egypt, two in South Africa and one in Tanzania – unlike the Chinese and Eastern Europe circus heavyweights, it is not surprising that Paris sat up and paid attention to Africa coming to town.

While looking for African talent comparable to circus chefs-d’oeuvre from Moscow and Peking, Alain M. Pacherie, the founder and director of Cirque Phénix, turned to the Zip Zap Circus (South Africa) and Circus Mama Africa (Tanzania). What was once a germ of an idea – an African show, unlike any other, in Paris – became a reality a few years later.

This was the reality we went to discover on a recent wintry Saturday afternoon in Paris.

The artists from South Africa, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Ghana, the Congo and Guinea; the costumes; the stage decor; the giant 3D animal and bird marionettes; the music – Lion King, move over! – were all made in Africa.

Forget clichéd African folklore and dancers garbed in traditional attire welcoming an African president or some other dignitary; forget the cold disciplined professionalism of Chinese acrobats and the aloof masterful excellence of trapeze artists from eastern Europe; forget the crisp, pasted smiles of chorus-line girls dancing the French cancan.

How could one not stand up, from the word go, and dance to Miriam Makeba, Youssou N’Dour or Touré Kunda numbers sang by three African musicians accompanied by a Big Live all-African band?

I felt Pata Pata.

The splash of colours from the costumes, decor and music reminded me of an African marketplace with its pyramid arrangement of colourful fruits and vegetables, and people talking, gossiping, haggling and laughing with music blaring from a nearby stall.

Cirkafrika is oh so cheerful, the music vibrant and the artists generous. The children couldn’t get bored even if they’d wanted to.

The artists – all very professional, focused and elegant in their performances – made their acts look so easy. They were genuinely having fun, their joy so contagious that I longed to join them on stage even though I have no circus skills.

Large, colourful plastic wash basins that can be found in African households replaced plates and bowls in the plate-spinning contortionist’s act. The artist spun five of them at a dizzying speed – one per limb and the fifth was spun using his mouth. The act was accompanied by vibrant dancing.

Pic: cirquephenix.com
Pic: cirquephenix.com

The colourful basins took me back to Saturday mornings in Kenya: tending to household chores after breakfast using similar kinds of basins, the same ones that hold grain and spices sold at the market. Cirkafrika was a ray of warm tropical sunshine in the middle of a European winter.

The Ethiopian hoop artist made me forget that she was manipulating hula hoops. What I saw was a Samburu woman beautifully adorned with handmade beaded ornaments.

Cirque Phénix never presents animal acts as a matter of principle, but what would Africa be without her rich fauna and award-worthy costumed artists on stilts? The children saw an animal parade of graceful giraffes, tropical birds, crocodiles and a life-size elephant. And the frog! Oh the lithe green human frog, padded feet, croaking and all. How on earth did he manage to fit into that little transparent box?

Pic: cirquephenix.com
Pic: cirquephenix.com

South Africa’s gumboot dancers made us long for more. So we asked for one encore and a second encore and yet another encore. We danced and we celebrated Africa. We saw the other face of the continent that has potential and talent and that can adapt and excel while preserving its Africanness.

Cirkafrika whispered that we can dare to dream and to believe in Africa because Africa’s got talent!

My children’s verdict? If Cirkafrika comes to a big top near you, drop whatever you are doing and run, don’t walk, to see it.

I agree.

The show, now on the road in Switzerland, Belgium and Ukraine, will be back in France/Europe in Winter 2013.

Jean Thévenet, a work-at-home mum, was born and raised in Kenya. She now lives in France and blogs at http://hearthmother.blogspot.com.